Chris Blattman recently posted as to why he thought Ben Affleck could possibly be “Congo’s best international donor”.
In reaching this startling conclusion he first slammed the UN, and then BINGOs:
2. Slightly less bureaucratic international NGOs dole out the money on behalf of the donor or UN. They are more nimble, but somehow 80% of the funds end up in Land Cruisers and management costs for the middleman.
Leaving aside the lack of nuance from the usually ultra-nuanced Blattman, I think we need to be careful about criticising BINGOs, though I admit to not being too shy in this area either.
Looked at more dispassionately, I think BINGOs are simply a logical manifestation of the modern knowledge economy. They are classic middlemen: they know the donors (including Joe Public donating amounts down to $10 at a time), and they know the local development operators. Moreover, the complex nature of conservation and development means that they cannot easily be dis-intermediated. (The comments on Blattman’s Affleck post suggest that Affleck’s organisation shows many of the standard characteristics of an INGO.) So while the likes of Kiva may try to reduce their overheads through an internet based ‘trading’ model, you cannot get rid of them altogether.
I get frustrated when non-economists in conservation and development descend to pointing accusatory fingers at “evil” middlemen. (Socialist and post-socialist governments seem pretty good at this too!) For example, a profit margin of 20% for a logging company felling tropical timber, might sound excessive compared to what local people receive, but, in fact, is probably the sort of return any rational investor would expect for investing in such a risky business. As the Ugandans found out when Idi Amin chased out the Indians, you might not like their business practices, but not having anyone playing that role is even worse.
So whilst I do think BINGOs could assuredly do a better job, not least in acknowledging a lot more prominently the key role that their local partners play in delivering conservation and development gains, they are an important part of the non-governmental aid architecture. As with the rest of the aid industry they suffer from the problem that the customer is split into a separate payer and beneficiary, so many market analogies work imperfectly at best, but that is not the fault of the BINGOs, most of whom at least try to address these kinds of problems.
So here’s a thanks to all the hard working folks in BINGOs who know their employers have plenty of faults but nonetheless play an invaluable role in converting generous donations in rich countries into sometimes-successful conservation and development projects in poor countries. Thanks guys!